Opening Myself to Sin

This is the first post in a series on immorality.  Posting on this topic will continue every day this week.

Whenever my boyfriend and I are walking in New Haven, he always gives something to any homeless person we come across.  He stops and talks to the people we run into, apologizes if he’s not carrying cash, and tries to make it up to them later.

I never do.  I believe that I do more good in giving to organizations than individuals, especially when those organizations can focus both on short term relief and on longer term solutions like job training and mental health counseling, if necessary.  I certainly don’t have enough information to figure out how to best apportion the money I have on my own, and I doubt that many of the homeless have enough information to make the choices they would prefer to make if they were fully informed unless they are working with an advocacy group.

On net, I think that my contributions do more good per dollar than those of my boyfriend, but I’m still pretty sure there’s something important I’m missing.

I am training myself to not be bothered too much when I see people in need of help.  Even if I’m making the best decision for everyone involved, it doesn’t change the fact that my thinking on charity and kindness changes from service offered to another person to an economic calculation I make on my own.

I honestly don’t know the extent to which, in  this constant, willful ignoring of suffering will diminish my desire to donate to causes supporting homelessness or will make it easier to discount my own power to help others in broader cases.

There are times when I’ve been less shut off from the needs of others, but my ability to be useful is usually diminished, since I have trouble not giving into despair.  When I was taking a class on geopolitics at summer camp, we watched a documentary on the Rwanda genocide and President Clinton’s decision not to get involved.  My classmates and I spent the next hour or so huddled together on the floor, bawling our eyes out.

While overwhelmed by grief, we were not doing anything to relieve suffering in Rwanda.  And although my knowledge of Rwanda did spur me to engage in activism against the genocide in Darfur, I still haven’t made anti-genocide activism my central focus.  And I’m certainly not aware of the suffering in Darfur in the same acute, painful way as I briefly was of the suffering in Rwanda.

Ultimately, I believe both that some level of disassociation from the needs of others is necessary to function, but I also believe that the process of desensitization to the suffering of others is what opens me up to sin.  The price of my ability to live is an endless assault on my sensitivity to suffering and my awareness of a duty to relieve it.  There may be ways to combat this insensitivity, but no matter the effort made, I can’t help but see humanity as intrinsically flawed, endlessly falling short of the glory of… something.

The series on sinfulness will continue every day this week.

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  • Two quick thoughts from greater minds than mine:"I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold." – Emerson in "Self-Reliance"Matthew 19:16-26 And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments."…The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.And Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."Some additional observations: as they say in the airplanes, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can assist others. A certain distancing from the ever-pressing need of this world keeps us from drowning in it, and I don't think that makes us sinful. (Indeed, as Emerson observed, a mindless contribution can itself be "wicked," by which I think he means it's more a token gesture to social "virtue" meaning external expectations.) At the same time, being a Baptist, I accept the view that we are all in sin – in need of help and unwilling/unable to give it – until we connect to the source of health and wealth and life. This may not address your concern about becoming a charitable calculator in the modern age (I've felt that m'self, especially as I "price out" my time & resources in law school – which, I'll admit, has not yet included church), but in my view you keep the soul alive and sensitive by tapping into the biggest heart in this world – the one that's always breaking for us but never broken.

  • When you say, "I never do," do you mean that you never give money, or that you never spend the time to talk to them? Is there any particular reason that you couldn't give both to organizations and to individuals? Certainly not every individual (you'd likely run over budget), but some individuals?It seems to me that simply talking with people is itself meaningful, both in showing them that you recognize their humanity and in developing your own character (which, if I recall correctly, is something that you may find valuable). I am going to write a post related to this once I get my life in order, so I won't go any further here. I will probably link to your post, not as the source of mine but as a serendipitous event.

  • Also, just as a point of curiosity, how on earth do you have time to write these posts?

  • Eve

    First of all, if Emerson opposed alms to sots then I now have the perfect justification for my dislike of him!Second, more seriously: What you give when you give to beggars is not primarily money. You give attention. That's why it's so important that your boyfriend talks with people even when he doesn't have cash on hand. I would strongly suggest that you consider getting to know a couple beggars, and giving only/mostly to them, while talking to and acknowledging everyone else.The reason I give money to (some) beggars is not because I think they will use it to maximize their utility (necessarily). I give money to beggars in part because a woman told me that people's willingness to give is one reason she has not yet committed suicide. It's about looking people in the face….Or, put it yet another way: If you give a dollar to a beggar, does that REALLY mean you will give less money to whichever "advocacy organizations" (LOL, experts uber alles) you prefer? Or does it mean you won't buy a soda from a vending machine? I know for me it's the latter.And to put it a fourth way (4? I've lost track), why not give a dollar AND a slip of paper with the number of a good Advocacy Organization? The latter will be taken more seriously when accompanied by the former; that's just human nature.

  • Eve

    PS: Um, that said, survivor's guilt is a debilitating and pointless response to others' suffering, and you're right that you have to separate yourself emotionally to some extent in order to be useful. I find survivor's guilt to be basically a horrific whirlpool into which I can be sucked fairly easily, and it NEVER actually results in my helping existing humans in need. So I hear what you're saying when you say that emotional distance can sometimes lead to MORE of the actions of love, not fewer/less.